Where Do You Want to be Buried?

Where Dad is buried.

Where Dad and Mom were buried.

Will it be a slender plot of earth in a cemetery? Or ashes scattered?

My father-in-law’s ashes are buried under a mature shade tree in a church retreat center. Before those acres were developed for future kids and adults, he had been one of the key people on a committee to walk the property and recommend its purchase. Visiting his “final resting place” often means joining others who are playing together, strengthening their faith, and having a darn good time away from home for a week at camp.

Where do you want to be buried?

A member in a Wisconsin congregation left explicit directions about burial in the family plot at a tiny cemetery out in the country. He wanted a brief graveside service. And he’d begged his family: get me in the ground as soon as possible. He died in a January. As his pastor, I recall we delayed the service for several cold, cold moments because of a recent storm. The backhoe had struggled to break through the new snow and frozen ground to dig the grave. But he got his wish.

Where do you want to be buried?

My father died from dementia. But before that dreary disease wrecked his mind, he and Mom had decided not to be buried in a suburban cemetery where they’d purchased plots years before. Instead, they chose a new regional national cemetery. Dad served in World War II. He and Mom were both rightly proud of his service and their generation’s sacrifices. Okay, bonus, that slice of government real estate was free! (But not truly free . . . for Dad had earned the honor.)

Where do you want to be buried?

On a Native American reservation, a few winding miles up the road from a rural church I served in California, the family and friends always dug the graves by hand and shovel. And then, following the service, they lingered to cover the grave. No backhoes. No hired help. If it takes a village to raise a child, it took a tribe to do a burial . . . from start to finish.

How do you want to be buried?

I recall the first funeral I did as a young preacher with an open casket. I didn’t know the deceased. His family had called my church, seeking any available minister. I met with them, and saw photos and heard stories about of their loved one. But nothing prepared me for walking into a mortuary’s chapel to stand above an embalmed body. Eyes shut, arms crossed over his chest, he appeared to be napping in his “Sunday best” . . . and sure didn’t look like the guy in the pictures.

How do you want to be buried?

Burial? Cremation? What are your preferences? Have you informed your family? Have you purchased a plot already? Who knows where the paperwork is filed? Would you prefer to have a “green” burial? Do you want your ashes spread “anywhere” in the ocean or mountains, or at particular beach or meadow?

I’ve done services for people who had everything decided years before their death: the prayers, songs, and poems or scripture. Smart folks, eh? (Don’t you resent ‘em at least a little?) I’ve done funerals for those I knew well and also complete strangers. When meeting with their families to ask what they wanted, they gave me a blank stare.

What is your loved one’s desires for the service? We don’t know.

Is there a special verse or family story or favorite poem or . . .? We don’t know.

I’ve told my wife and a few others where I’d prefer to be buried. Or, actually, where I’d like my ashes spread. It will probably have to be sneakily done at night. Don’t ask for details, since I don’t want a park ranger at my front door accusing me of a future crime.

I’ve done enough formal funerals and “quick” graveside services to joke a little about being six feet under. When in seminary, studying for ministry and barely knowing which end of the Bible to open, we had a visitor at one of our classes. He was a vice-president at the famous Forest Lawn Cemetery in southern California. He told of one service, a cremation, where the dearly departed had requested “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” for one of the songs. The class nervously laughed. I’m sure “Mr. Forest Lawn” was spinning a tall tale. (Or was he?)

In a 2013 National Geographic article, the Neanderthals likely engaged in burial practices 50,000 years ago. For reasons sacred and practical, graves have been part of the human experience since before recorded history. However, it’s no stretch to imagine an ancient Neanderthal ancestor avoiding a decision about where the final resting place will be. I suspect procrastination is an even older “practice” for humans!

If you or a loved one enters into hospice care, it’s likely a social worker will ask about your funeral and burial plans. He or she will be polite and listen carefully. They will respect your cultural background and religious traditions. The social worker will understand that many people don’t like to discuss funerals.

But plans need to be made.

IMG_1504Of course there are those that don’t prepare for their demise. By plan or lack of plan, their survivors make all the lousy and lovely decisions.

Really?

My mother jokingly told me to do whatever I wanted for her after she died . . . since she wouldn’t be around to complain or criticize. But she also looked me in the eye and bluntly stated that she didn’t want a service or even an obituary. My sisters and I followed her instructions. We knew what she didn’t want. And we knew Dad wanted to be buried among other veterans.

If a social worker asks about your plans, and you have none, take advantage of her or his suggestions and resources. The hospice chaplain can also provide assistance.

Your death will be extraordinarily hard on your family and friends. Help make one of the first decisions they have to make without you a little less difficult.

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

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Comments

  1. When my grandfather was close to passing he called ‘his’ pastor, really my grandmother’s pastor because he never went to church, over to discuss what he wanted and he did it when my grandmother was not going to be home. Their’s was not a happy marriage and he disliked her family. They were very ‘correct’ conservative Christians with a right way to do everything and this service was going to be everything my grandfather was not. My grandmother had married a bad boy who frankly worked at it. Much to our surprise, the first song was ‘Another One Bites the Dust.’ My grandmother’s family walked out. The rest of us who knew him, knew that was the intended reaction. The Pastor said it was his final farewell. I’ve speculated many times, what the conversation between the pastor and his wife that morning must have been like. I still giggle when I hear that song. It’s quite impressive on a church organ.

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